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The rookie made it to the big leagues before more-heralded prospects from the same class. That’s got to be good, right?
Kris Bubic was the fourth of five college pitchers taken in the first two rounds of the 2018 draft by the Kansas City Royals. Big things were and are expected for Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, and Jackson Kowar. If Bubic and Jonathan Bowlan hadn’t been from the same demographic draft-wise, I’m not sure anyone would have been talking about them until they reached Kansas City. Still, Bubic beat all but Singer to the big leagues and even Singer didn’t get there much before him.
Making the jump from A-ball to the big leagues is really hard (It’s not that hard, Scott. Tell him, Wash! It’s incredibly hard.) It would be a mistake to suggest that Bubic didn’t have his share of struggles, but those struggles did not define his season. The big left-hander made 10 starts and the difference between the first five and the last five, despite being arbitrary endpoints, is pretty extreme in some cases even while the numbers are disappointingly similar in others.
Bubic’s biggest problem the entire season was almost certainly his lack of control. He walked almost four batters per nine innings throughout the year. That rate remained almost entirely static, throughout. However, his second biggest problem was the number of home runs he allowed and that number dropped by almost 20% in the second group of starts. His strikeout rate also improved more than two strikeouts per nine and these factors combined to see his first-half ERA of 5.96 drop to a second-half ERA of 2.96. That will absolutely play. The OPS against is also starkly different with the first half sitting at an unsightly, for a pitcher, .884 while in his second half he held hitters to a mere .685. A lot of that OPS difference came in the form of reduced non-home run extra-base hits, which he halved, going from five doubles and a triple to just three doubles.
The strikeout rate, in particular, is very encouraging. It’s not surprising that a 23-year-old promoted straight from A-ball in a bizarre season might struggle with his control. That’s something I expect him to fix over time. But the strikeouts mean he has a lot of swing-and-miss in his stuff and approach. Heck, even if the walks don’t come down much as long as the strikeouts stay at the higher level he’s boosted from a slightly less than 2-1 K/BB ratio to a 2.5-1 ratio. That should be good enough to get him out of trouble a lot of times even if it means he may struggle to make his appearances last over-long.
In the kind of statistics for pitchers that try to consolidate the entirety of their performance into single, easily understood numbers like ERA- (Being below 100 is good), ERA+ (Being above 100 is good), and FIP- (Again, being below 100 is good) he rated around average for the complete season at 96 ERA-, 109 FIP-, and 106 ERA+ according to FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference. If you look at just the numbers over his last five starts the ERA- drops all the way to 66 even though the FIP-, which is counting all those walks against him, only lowers to 97.
One thing about Bubic that is odd on the surface is that he was far less successful against left-handed hitters than righties. But when you remember that his best pitch is a changeup – a pitch that traditionally is more difficult for opposite-side hitters to hit – it begins to make sense. Interestingly enough, Baseball Savant suggests that his changeup has less movement than the average while his curveball has more. Still, Brooks Baseball confirms that he gets far more whiffs on the change than he does the curve. Also of note, Bubic didn’t face very many lefties in 2020, only about 14% of the batters faced were left-handed. It’s fair to wonder if that will change in 2021 and how he might adjust to it.
The thing about Kris Bubic is that, as much as no Royals fan would not complain if he turned into an ace, he’d be hugely valuable if he just turned into a middle-of-the-rotation guy who can give you five or six innings without letting the game get out of hand. And, at age 23, all hope is not lost on him figuring out his control and becoming something closer to a front-of-the-rotation piece. It’s not like his control has been a chronic problem for his entire professional career, either; he was perfectly adequate in the minors.
He might or might not pan out but he still represents something far different from what Royals fans are used to. For years the Royals have trotted out pitching “prospect” after “prospect” who couldn’t strike guys out while insisting that somehow “pitching to contact” was better, even though their recent playoff runs were predicated on the idea that their batters just never struck out. Now the Royals are showing us some guys who can send opposing hitters back to the dugout without ever letting the ball into play. And it’s exciting.
Kris Bubic, for rising to the occasion of a rapid promotion and improving as the season progressed, earns an A from me for his sterling efforts as a starting pitcher. I can’t wait to see what he can do in 2021 and beyond.